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Aliens, cell phones, and the cost of distracted driving

02/13/2014

My favorite book as a teenager was Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” a great and hilarious book about interstellar bypasses, a two-headed President of the Universe, and living mattresses from the swamps of Sqornshellous Zeta.

One of the book’s protagonists, an alien from Betelgeuse Five, comes to Earth as a reporter for an interstellar almanac. His intent: compiling an entry on humanity.

In order to seem inconspicuous, he chooses the name “Ford Prefect”; after observing our societies, he had erroneously assumed that our vehicles were the dominant form of life.

We do spend a lot of our time going to and from places in cars. When we aren’t using them, they congregate like metallic beetles in the parking lots of shopping malls, grocery stores and driveways. We “feed” them at gas stations. A huge part of our economy is affected by the abundance or shortage of the fuel our cars run on.

Some people (not me) wash and care for their cars like they are living things. We personify them with nicknames. Car companies design them to evoke a feeling of feral power or speed, with names like Ram, Mustang, Firebird, and Viper. We love our cars, our mechanical pets—even though they’re dangerous.

Our infatuation with cars was part of the reason the South came to a grinding halt on January 28th. When the storm caught us unawares at our places of work and school, we rushed as one to our vehicles to ferry us safely home.

That worked out really well, didn’t it?

We let our love of the personal vehicle and our love for other modern innovations, like the smart phone, destroy and maim us.

Drivers distracted by their cell phones or radios or GPS devices killed 3,331 people in 2011—ten percent of all crash fatalities in the U.S.

The official government website on the matter, Distraction.gov, says “distracted driving is any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving.” Distractions listed below that sentence include “eating,” “grooming” and “adjusting the radio.”

But the website says the worst distraction is texting, because it requires “visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver.” The week before the storm hit, I was driving home from campus on Highway 21 when I looked over at the young woman in the car next to me.

She was only occasionally glancing up from her cell phone to make sure she was still in her lane.

What made her distracted driving even worse was the fact that she had a kid in a booster seat in the back of the car.

She had to take a hand off the wheel to reach for her phone, then she had to look down and read whatever was on the screen; she had to think about what she’d say back and then type it.

During this time, she looked away from the road for what the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute says is an average of 4.6 seconds. At 55 miles per hour, that’s like traveling the length of an entire football field blind.

All that activity made her three times more likely to wreck her car and hurt the child in her backseat. Was arguing with her baby’s daddy really worth that risk?

No way!

The danger that distracted driving presents to yourself and others is never justified. The next time you’re tempted to reach for your phone while driving, don’t even go there.

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